World History 2 41 - 3.3.3 The Contest for the Swahili Coast

Kilwa, located on an island off the coast of what is now Tanzania, was the most powerful of the city-states of the Swahili coast. According to legend, it was founded in the tenth century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, the son of a Persian noble and an enslaved Ethiopian woman. Ali supposedly settled the island after purchasing it from a local Bantu king. Kilwa’s location on an island made it better suited to engaging in the Indian Ocean trade than its rival city to the north, Mogadishu in today’s Somalia, and numerous Arab and Persian merchants came to settle in it.

In the 1180s, the ruler of Kilwa gained control of the port city of Sofala, on the African mainland in what is now Mozambique. Gold from the mines of the Kingdom of Mutapa flowed through Sofala, making it both wealthy and powerful. Control of Sofala enabled the sultan of Kilwa to escape the dominance of Mogadishu, formerly the most powerful city on the East African coast. The gold also allowed Kilwa to establish or assume control of other cities and island states in East Africa, including Mombasa, Pemba, Mafia, Mozambique, Malindi, Imhambane, Comoro, and Zanzibar.

Beyond the Book

European Views of Sofala

Following are two European views of Sofala on the Swahili coast, the port through which the gold of Mutapa flowed. The first image, made by Portuguese historian Manuel Faria e Sousa, shows seventeenth-century Sofala in the estuary of the Buzi River (Figure 3.17).

A drawing of a map is shown. It is labeled “Fortaleza.” It shows many waterways cutting the land into smaller areas, some becoming islands. Trees and houses are drawn on the land. An area at the top right of the map surrounded by water is labeled ‘Sofala.’ Along the bottom of the map two large ships and two small boats are shown floating in the water
Figure 3.17 This seventeenth-century Portuguese drawing of Sofala shows it, in the upper right, as located at the mouth of the Buzi River. (credit: “Depiction of Sofala (Mozambique)” by Asia Portuguesa, volume 1/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The second image, created a few years after the first for a world atlas by French cartographer Alain Manesson Mallet, shows a close-up of Sofala (Figure 3.18). By the time these images were made, very few Portuguese actually lived in Sofala. The city’s marshy environment provided an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, and many Portuguese contracted malaria.

Two colorful drawings are shown. The image on the left shows an area of land surrounded by water, with other land around it. There is a sky with clouds above it. Houses, trees, and people are shown on the land. At the top of the image is a yellow sign that says,. ‘Sofala.” The image on the right is a larger view of the bottom of the first image. It shows the circle of land surrounded by water, showing trees, a fort, houses. On the land outside the water, there is shown farmland, trees, people, and mountains and a sky in the distance.
Figure 3.18 This French cartographer’s copperplate engraving of a view of Sofala, also from the seventeenth century, shows a close-up look at the city. (credit: modification of work “View of Sofala, Mozambique, in 1683” by “Mallet”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • How have the two European artists chosen to depict Sofala?
  • Do these images indicate that it was a wealthy city of prosperous merchants? Do they indicate that it was a dangerous place for Portuguese to live? Explain your answers.
  • Why do you think the artists chose to depict it as they have?

In the early sixteenth century, Portugal attempted to seize the wealth of the Swahili coast, aided by internal dissent within the Sultanate of Kilwa. In 1495, Kilwa’s Emir Muhammad, the chief administrator of the city-state, had placed al-Fudail ibn Suleiman on the sultan’s throne. Shortly thereafter, Emir Muhammad died, and his successor Emir Ibrahim engineered the assassination of al-Fudail ibn Suleiman. Emir Ibrahim then seized power for himself, claiming to rule on behalf of an absent prince. The rulers of several cities within the Kilwa Sultanate were not willing to accept Ibrahim as their overlord, however, and regarded the Portuguese as potential allies in their attempts to claim their independence. The Sheikh of Malindi had already signed a trade agreement with Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, in 1498 in order to compete in trade with both Kilwa and the rival city of Mombasa. Sheikh Isuf, the ruler of Sofala, also signed an agreement with the Portuguese in 1502 in hopes of breaking free of Kilwa’s dominance. The Swahili coast city-states had long been trade rivals, and their history of competition with one another prevented them from unifying in the face of the threat of Portuguese domination.

Although counselors had encouraged Emir Ibrahim to agree to trade with the Portuguese, he initially rebuffed them. In 1505, Francisco de Almeida, another Portuguese explorer, landed five hundred Portuguese soldiers on the island of Kilwa and replaced Emir Ibrahim with a Kilwan aristocrat called Muhammad Arcone, who was more amenable to dealing with the Portuguese. The following year, Muhammad Arcone was assassinated by supporters of Emir Ibrahim and succeeded by a ruler whom they favored. Fearing that the new Sultan Micante would not be easy to control, the Portuguese removed him from power and gave the throne to Arcone’s son, Hussein ibn Muhammad.

Many Kilwans resented Portuguese interference in the governing of their city-state. They also disliked Portugal’s requirement that Kilwans ship goods only on Portuguese-owned ships, a practice that financially harmed many Kilwan merchants. Supporters of Sultan Micante and embittered merchants rose up and did battle in the streets with Portuguese soldiers and followers of Sultan Hussein. Residents fled the city as gangs set fire to buildings. The Portuguese supported Hussein but also wisely chose to change the policy regarding shipping, and gradually merchants returned to the city.

Portugal extended its control along the rest of the Swahili coast as well, establishing trading posts. Because the coastal city-states had never before experienced attacks from the sea, their ports were not fortified and could not easily defend against the Portuguese. The Portuguese were not interested in trading with East African merchants on equal terms, and as they had in India, they looted and sank the ships of rival traders, most of whom were Muslims. Many merchants left the region and moved northward, resulting in a decline in trade. On the southern part of the coast, the Portuguese hoped to exploit the wealth of Mutapa and took control of the kingdom in 1633, but the gold deposits were largely exhausted by this point, and their efforts to convert the population to Roman Catholicism resulted in conflict. Some individual Portuguese did well, marrying African women and receiving land and the right to trade from local African chiefs. For the most part, though, constant conflict with city-states and the effects of tropical diseases such as malaria made it difficult for Portugal to exploit the area.

Both the Ottomans and Somalis from the region of Mogadishu feared and resented Portuguese intrusion in East Africa. Joint Somali-Ottoman attacks beginning in the second half of the 1500s wreaked havoc on Portuguese efforts to control the region (Figure 3.19). These assaults were followed in the 1650s by attacks by the Omani Sultanate. Portugal had established control over the coast of Oman in 1507. However, in the 1650s, the Omani tribes united to drive the Portuguese out, and soon they began to challenge the Portuguese in East Africa as well. In 1698, Fort Jesus, the Portuguese garrison at Mombasa, fell to Omani forces. (Fort Jesus is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.) Soon thereafter, Portugal lost control of all its remaining colonies on the Swahili coast except Mozambique. The Omani Sultanate had brought the Portuguese attempt to dominate the region to an end.

A drawing shows ships sailing in the water. Three large ships are shown toward the bottom of the drawing with black hulls, white masts, and red flags. A similar ship is shown in the middle of the drawing. Six small ships with white and red sails are in the top left of the drawing while there are four small ships with black hulls and white sails in the top right of the drawing. Hills appear in the bottom left of the drawing.
Figure 3.19 An Ottoman fleet patrols the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula in this sixteenth-century Turkish painting, which shows Aden as the three hills in the lower left. The Somali inhabitants of cities on the northern Swahili coast turned to the Ottomans for help against the Portuguese. (credit: “Ottoman fleet Indian Ocean 16th century” by Aramco World/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

With the arrival of the Omanis, the city-state of Zanzibar grew to even greater prominence. The Omanis continued the profitable slave trade as well as the thriving trade in elephant ivory that had long been part of Zanzibar’s economy. Land on the island was redistributed to Omani Arabs, and spice plantations growing primarily cloves were established, earning Zanzibar and the surrounding islands the nickname of Africa’s Spice Islands.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax